I cooked food from Turkey and Cyprus on the fourth week because it was Christmas, and apparently St. Nicholas was a Turkish Saint. This caused mild confusion when my family expected me to bring an actual cooked Turkey to Christmas lunch. I stand by my choice, given that it’s often above 30 degrees Celsius in Brisbane at Christmas, and Turkish food is a little more suited to this climate than cooking and eating an entire turkey. Turkish cuisine sits at the centre of many influences, including Middle Eastern, Greek, Balkan, Caucasian and Asian. I’ve long held the suspicion that cuisines that have had a long history of trade and culinary plasticity are the best – there’s just more flavours and influences historically for them to choose from, and the recipes that last are often the best of the best. As the consumption of meat only became common outside of special celebrations in modern times, there is a healthy basis of vegetables to Turkish cuisine, showcasing tomato, capsicum, olives, artichokes, cabbage, celery, eggplants and, very prominently, a wide variety of legumes. There are hundreds of wonderful Turkish recipes that “upgrade” the humble vegetable into superstar status, for instance by stuffing them with spiced mixtures of grain or other vegetables before cooking, a category all of its own called “dolma”. I love this concept of creating a dish that might be shunned by picky children in other forms, but which is surely beloved by all who can see the love and patience poured into delicately assembling each dolma. Popular grains in Turkey include bulgur (cracked wheat, often used as a tasty filler for other dishes), rice and a wide range of leavened and unleavened breads made from wheat flour. Dairy features prominently in Turkish cuisine, with a huge variety of cheeses as well as thick delicious yoghurt, which can be served by itself or combined with other flavourings as a side to almost any meal.
Meze exists in many forms throughout parts of the Middle East, Balkans, Greece and North Africa, and is also closely related to the Spanish concept of tapas. Legend has it that the concept stems from servants of early Persian rulers, who would take small plates of all the food on offer to the ruler and taste each to ensure none were poisoned. This concept soon became fashionable with the upper classes of the surrounding regions as a way to emulate the Sultan’s dining habits. Nowadays, depending on the region, occasion or host, meze can take the form of an appetiser, canapés, bar food or an entire meal, the latter option sometimes accidentally becoming the case when amateur diners overindulge on meze and find themselves too full to go on dining. Just as well meals in Turkey are often hours-long occasions! In Turkey, mezes usually start off cold and often vegetarian, then there is a second round of hot meze that sometimes features meat or, more commonly, seafood. I chose to stick to cold vegetarian for my meze, which proved to be a surprisingly tasty and healthy combination that suited many dietary requirements of my guests. I made (clockwise from top right of the outer ring) mixed olives, sarma (stuffed vine leaves), bazlama (flatbread), piyaz (butter bean salad), chopped Turkish salad, mercimek koftesi (red lentil and bulgur patties), marinated artichokes and avurdağ salatasitomato (tomato, bulgur and walnut salad). Clockwise from the top right of the inner ring included: marinated green peppers, kiz güzeli (beetroot yogurt dip), yoğurtlu havuç (carrot yogurt dip), sumac-roasted chickpeas, marinated red pepper strips, hummus, grilled eggplant strips and haydari (yoghurt cheese with herbs). I made the bread from scratch, with yeast and Greek yoghurt. I think this was my first ever attempt at cooking with yeast. I’ve cooked a lot of diverse dishes before, but bread has never been very high on my to-do list. I had a slight hiccup when I interpreted the temperature of the water you add the yeast to as Celsius, rather than Fahrenheit, and added my yeast to boiling water (thus killing them all and needing to repeat that step). That was a bit embarrassing, seeing as part of my day job is to do molecular biology, and therefore know the limits of eukaryote environmental stressors. In my defence, Christmas is tiring time, and I realised my error very quickly. Also, come on USA, we’re all in Celsius out here, join the party!
Imam bayildi literally means “The Imam fainted”, Imam being a term for an Islamic leader. The story goes that the eponymous Imam of Turkish history was presented the dish by his wife, and, so enraptured was he by the taste, instantly swooned in a rapture of sensorial pleasure. However, the more cynical historians whisper an alternative explanation, where the loss of consciousness was actually in response to hearing the exorbitant price of the ingredients, particularly the large volumes of precious olive oil, required to make the dish. T Luckily, the price of olive oil is a little more reasonable nowadays, and the vegetarian nature of this dish is actually very gentle on one’s finances. I made my Imam bayildi by stuffing a whole baked eggplant with vegetables (onion, garlic, tomatoes and capsicum), then simmering the preparation in lots of olive oil. The generous use of olive oil places this dish squarely in the “zeytin yağlı” category of Turkish meals, which is a term describing any dish of vegetables cooking in oil.
Turkish pide (pronounced pee-day) is often called “Turkish pizza”, and indeed it shares a similar dough (flour, water, salt and yeast) but lacks the tomato base and circular shape, instead mostly commonly forming a boat shape. Like pizza, the toppings of pide are theoretically only limited by the chef’s imagination, although spiced lamb is one of the most traditional and common. I made my pide with handmade dough (getting the yeast right first go this time), and chose three different stuffings: spinach and feta, spiced lamb mince with onion and mixed sautéed vegetables flavoured with sumac. The boat concept is genius, primarily because you can stuff a lot of filling in, and still have a reasonable manageable open-topped pastry. I can also imagine that the little pointy twisted ends are a very convenient handle, especially if you were consuming this dish at a street stall in bustling Istanbul. Ultimately, this is a wonderfully tasty dish, not to mention ideal if all you want to eat is pizza, but want to seem more exotic and worldly at the same time.
Döner kebap and mercimek çorbası
Turkey is overflowing with varieties of kebabs (or kebaps), evidenced by the detailed description of over 30 types on wikipedia, including those made with cubes of meat threaded on a stick, minced meat shaped around a flat skewer, or various sizes of loose meat pieces combined with other ingredients. Döner kebap, however, is arguably the most internationally famous export from Turkey, popular as a fast food, and strongly associated by some countries with a late-night meal at the end of a drunken adventure on the town. However, the name originally describes only the meat and not the entire flat bread wrap preparation often referred to as a döner kebap in the west. The dish is prepared by tightly layering seasoned pieces of raw meat along a large metal rod in the shape of an inverted cone. This preparation is then turned rotisserie style (indeed “döner” comes from the Turkish word “dönmek” meaning “to rotate”) next to a vertical source of heat, usually in an industrial setting, and very thin slices are shaved off as required by the consumers. The meat shavings can be served inside a pita wrap or other bread and/or on a plate with vegetables, rice or sauces. The origins of the dish lie in the invention of the vertical rotisserie in the 1800s in the Ottoman empire, legendarily in the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa by Iskender Efendi, whose descendants still run a restaurant in the region, although the horizontal rotisserie was in place as far back as the 1600s. The döner kebap exploded in popularity internationally in the latter half of the 1900s, with particular success in Germany, where a large influx of Turkish migrant workers in the 1970s introduced the meat-loving Germans to a whole new world of flavours and textures of meat, resulting in a 3.5 billion euro per year industry in modern times. My week of German cooking may be a while ahead, but I’ve already noted that a number of lists of the national dishes of various countries specify döner kebab as a proud representative of German cuisine, which seems crazy to me. What must the other, more traditional, options for Germany’s national dish be to have chosen such a recent foreign introduction? Should I be worried about German week? As well as my lamb döner kebap, flatbread, yoghurt sauce (cacik) and salad, I made mercimek çorbası, which helpfully translates very literally to “lentil soup”. Soup is a popular starter to meals in Turkey, especially in winter, and a basis of legumes and vegetables with spices makes them some of the healthiest and tastiest varieties that I’ve tried. I made my mercimek çorbası by gently sautéing onion, garlic and lots of grated carrot, then combining this with red lentils, vegetables broth, tomato paste, cumin and paprika until cooked through, then food processing the mix to a thick, smooth consistency. The dish is often served with a squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle of paprika-infused olive oil, and is a popular way to break the day’s fasting during ramadan. I was floored by the taste of this dish – I knew I liked lentils but was not prepared for the staggering complexity of flavours that these seemingly paltry ingredients could supply. I should have known, the ancient Greek Aristophanes warned me centuries ago: “you, who dare insult lentil soup, sweetest of delicacies”, and the book of Genesis describes a fragrant red lentil soup as the ultimate temptation for Esau, brother of Jacob, who was even willing to relinquish his birthright for the substance. You have been warned – now go forth and cook mercimek çorbası with appropriate caution for the degree of surprised deliciousness you will encounter.